This Italian award-winner is a gripping mafia movie and a stunning coming-of-age drama all in one.
May 12, 2022
Lurking behind every 18th birthday, beyond the alcohol legally drunk and nightclubs gleefully danced through, is an unspoken truth: life only gets more chaotic from here. That realisation doesn't usually spring during the celebrations, toasts and happy speeches of the big day itself — or necessarily within weeks, months or even a few years afterwards, either — however, it's inescapable nonetheless. In To Chiara, it blazes brightly for the movie's eponymous teenager (Swamy Rotolo). It shatters her sense of normality, too. But she isn't the one hitting the milestone that every adolescent yearns for. Instead, the party that helps start this Italian drama is actually for the 15-year-old's elder sister Giulia (Grecia Rotolo), with the pair's friends and relatives alike marking the occasion as countless other families have: with dinner, festivities and delighted emotions.
As captured with a raw, fluid and naturalistic style like everything that both precedes it and follows, Giulia's birthday is a portrait of exuberance — until, for Chiara, it isn't. She plays up a garden-variety case of sibling rivalry, including during a performative dance contest. She revels in still being her doting dad Claudio's (Claudio Rotolo) favourite. And she thinks nothing of sneaking outside to have a smoke, only slightly worrying if her father will find out. But it's there, cigarette in hand, that Chiara watches her uncles get into a verbal scuffle outside. Then, in the aftermath, she spies her doting dad rushing off to deal with the fallout. Also, later that evening, perturbed by the feeling that something isn't quite right, it's Chiara who witnesses the family car explode outside their home, and spots Claudio fleeing under the cloak of darkness.
The newest neo-realist film by Italian American writer/director Jonas Carpignano, To Chiara is also his third set in the Calabrian region, in the small coastal town of Gioia Tauro. It's the latest entry in a series that explores the area's mix of residents, segueing from refugees from North Africa in 2015's Mediterranea to the Romani community in 2017's A Ciambra, and now to the 'Ndrangheta. Call the latter the mafia, call them an organised crime syndicate, call them just part of living Southern Italy — whichever you pick, Chiara has always just considered them her loved ones without knowing it. Learning how her dad pays the bills and why he's now a fugitive, gleaning that her mother (Carmela Fumo) must be aware, trying to uncover where Giulia stands, attempting to cope with everything she thought she knew crumbling in an instant: that's what this gripping and moving film has in store for its young, headstrong, understandably destabilised protagonist from here.
From the moment that Chiara begins to make her big discovery — piecing together the details stubbornly, despite being warned that her questions won't have welcome answers — it's easy to recognise why such a tale fascinates Carpignano. It's the story that sits in the shadows of other gangster flicks and shows, because so many are also about the bonds of blood; in decades gone by, it could've been Mary Corleone facing the same situation in The Godfather franchise or Meadow Soprano doing the same in The Sopranos. To Chiara also unfurls the ultimate tale of innocence lost, forever fracturing the bubble of an idyll that Chiara has spent her life inhabiting without ever realising, and causing her to now see the parent she has always adored in a completely different light. Nothing signals leaving childhood behind, no matter your age, more than having the entire foundation for your existence shift, after all. As gleams fiercely in its phenomenal lead's eyes, nothing is more devastating, either.
Working with cinematographer Tim Curtin, as he did in A Ciambra — actors from which also pop up here, too, when Chiara starts expressing her shock via destructive outlets — Carpignano rarely ventures far from his protagonist. While film doesn't merely play out in close-ups, it'd be something else entirely without the deep and intimate gaze it holds with the teen, and the way it lets audiences stare into her soul as a result. Sometimes gliding, sometimes jittery, the handheld camerawork matches Chiara's inner state. Whether she's demanding answers from Giulia or following secrets into hidden spaces, every visual touch is aligned with her energy and her emotions, in fact. The score by Dan Romer (Dear Evan Hansen) and Benh Zeitlin (Carpignano's Mediterranea, and also his own Beasts of the Southern Wild) vibrates on the same wavelength as well, but To Chiara is always a movie about perception — and how it observes its titular figure, and also mirrors how she discerns the world around her, is oh-so-crucial to the feature's stunning impact.
And, from its heady early moments to its poignant ending, this is indeed a stunning film. It's also a picture anchored by a remarkable lead performance — a jewel among a glimmering cast, all nonprofessional actors, as Carpignano has drawn upon for this entire trio of movies. As their names make plain, the talents behind To Chiara's main characters are all related, and all let that inherent comfort with each other calm and complicate their on-screen dynamic. Swamy Rotolo is nothing short of revelatory, though. Playing someone who once felt like she was sliding smoothly through the world, only to find that her fortunate status quo is slick not from luck, love or joy but the spoils of the criminal underworld, she's sincerely dogged and desperately uncertain at once. She sports the invincibility of youth, and also the pain when that facade fractures. That she often looks and feels like she could've stepped out of another female coming-of-age gem, Mustang, is the highest of compliments.
Just as convincing: the slow-burning feature's delicate balancing act, with To Chiara careful not to judge or champion anyone's choices, or the path that's led some Gioia Tauro locals to the 'Ndrangheta, or to make its namesake a hero or a victim. Weighing up the two sides of the equation — the privilege and prejudices that Chiara didn't openly know she had and their sources, plus the stakes, costs and future ramifications of living a life tainted by crime — is the movie's central figure's task, which she navigates through emotional outbursts, tense glimpses inside her town's underbelly, on-the-ground forays into her father's reality and legally mandated foster-care arrangements alike. Accordingly and fittingly, when another 18th birthday party rolls around to bookend the deserving Cannes Film Festival 2021 Best European Film-winner, the idea that adulthood is chaos takes on a different tone. To Chiara never shakes that notion or tries to dispel it, but instead grapples and lives with it, and makes for potent and resonant viewing in the process.